Making History Bearable: Lynda Hull and Reading Newark

Hull’s poems are an ethical response to cities, because their specific, accurate, truthful, lyrical language demonstrates her responsible choice of that language, and her responsibility for her stand on the question of the status of the cities in her imagination. Duke Ellington said that jazz is about choosing to be joyful in spite of conditions: Hull’s poetry makes this choice, by allowing the beauty she saw to intermingle with forces of decline pushing against beauty. This tension, combined with her camouflaged, subversive voices (herself or someone like herself) created a vision of the city unrivaled by other poetry then or now.

The poet’s relationship to Newark tells the reader to think through the urban crisis differently, projected through forms which are themselves tragicomic, the eloquent blues aesthetic; the poems conjure an abiding mystery that speak to tragic circumstances, yes, but also reconciliation:

“She knew how to lift a moment of beauty out of sheer ugliness, and she could touch the bedrock of contradictions embedded in the human psyche. Maybe this is what Newark taught her. When one looks at the body of work, the three wonderful collections held side-by-side, one realizes that hers was a seamless beckoning for an imagistic clarity that is out of this world.”[17]

Lynda Hull was attentive to the memories that often are ignored or overlooked in literary experiences of the urban environment. She felt that there was a vast underclass of the disenfranchised, all of whom were rarely acknowledged by our literature. She gave them voices, not for apotheosis, but to testify to their value, to memorialize them.[18] Her book uses the metaphor of Newark’s newspaper as a guide to the events through which she sifts. The newspaper is “not just a force in city government but a part of the neighborhood and a member of the family.”[19] As an engagement with the subtext of Newark’s present and past, the title Star Ledger alludes to myth or the zodiac, sub-rosa indicators of how to make choices that the daily news doesn’t offer.[20] The idea of Star Ledger, takes on dynamic, multiple meanings for Newark’s cosmic fate, yet the final image of recovery implies hopefulness and fulfilled anticipation.

Star Ledger

Star Ledger
BY Lynda Hull
(University of Iowa Press, 1991)

The most important poem on Newark in Star Ledger, though, is “Love Song during Riot with Many Voices,” with a subtitle, “Newark, 1967.” Hull thought of Newark often. “A particularly striking memory for her was going with her father to hear Martin Luther King speak at a predominantly black church circa 1966 or thereabouts — a year or two before the ’67 riots. Although her father couldn’t exactly be called progressive in his politics, he obviously sensed the significance of that moment, that event.”[21] Although only thirteen at the time of the riots, she must have drawn on her memory of them; she was a teenager during the tumultuous subsequent years when the causes and impact were being publically debated. Her attendance of King’s speech shows a bridge between language of integrationist politics of nonviolence and the sociological scope of her later work, sensed as a seed in her nascent imagination of language.

Combined with whatever trauma Hull was experiencing at home, she ran away from Newark two years later, never to return. “Love Song during Riot with Many Voices” includes many of the rhetorical devices — enjambment, multiple voices, metaphors connecting Newark with the personal body, and recovered voices, especially of women — used in the above poems, though more spectacularly. The poem works to unify the social disturbance outside on Newark’s streets with a personally felt disturbance, somewhat deeper, in the interior of the speaker (Hull herself?) observing it behind boarded windows. Its initial image, the iron mesh of a bridge, alludes to Newark’s industrial past as the light through the mesh cuts and divides the local population into “shadow and pale” and “man and woman”:

The bridge’s iron mesh chases pockets of shadow
and pale through blinds shuttering the corner window

to mark this man, this woman, the young eclipse
their naked bodies make — black, white, white,
black, the dying fall of light rendering bare walls

incarnadine, color of flesh and blood occluded

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References

  1. Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa. 2009.
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.
  1. Zurier, Rebecca. Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 74.
  1. Williams famously said, “It is difficult to get the news from poetry, yet men die every day for lack of what is found there.”
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.

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